Tuesday, September 27, 2011

technology and magic

While I was working on this post, JMG posted another take on the same topic:archdruid

We are both discussing technology and magic, in reference to current cultural trends and Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

While I agree with JMG that the goals of some magic (and incidentally some forms of religion) are different than the goals of some forms of technology, I think there are common goals between some forms of magic (and religion) and some forms of technology.

I define magic (and religion) as the manipulation of symbols and consciousness. I define (material) technology as manipulating the material world. By this definition of magic, computer hackers and theoretical physicists and mathematicians are doing magic. Some people (like JMG) extend the definition to include a purpose: magic for the purpose of changing consiousness, technology for the purpose of manipulating the material world. But there are some other folks who think (erroneously perhaps) that manipulating symbols can also directly change the material world. This is what the God of ancient judaism and many other religions are supposed to do. This is what some new agers believe about their visualizations or affirmations. This is what most people who are alienated from production of material goods in a service economy, believe that their technology is doing. This is what economists do when they think that they can create oil with investment. This is what non-muggles do in Harry Potter's world. This is perhaps what some primitive peoples did with their rituals (e.g. raindance)

JMG forms a useful classification of magic and technology based on one purpose (I will propose another below), that of changing consciousness or directly changing the material world. He discusses 3 possibilities:
1. Using magic to change consciousness (what he and smart mages, advertizers, computer hackers, some religious people and mystics do)
2. Using magic to attempt to change the material word directly. The list of people who do this is above.
3. Using (material) technology to change the material world. This is what is done by an industrial infrastructure composed of complicated machines and mostly third world workers (some of them in the US). But it was also done by pre-industrial craftsmen and farmers. And it is also done by most people in mundane ways such as opening doors, driving cars and cooking.

There is a fourth possibility that JMG omits, which I mention here:
4. Using technology to change consiousness, which is what most people in the world (developed or not, modern or ancient) do with consciousness-altering drugs. In the modern world, people also use electronic media to alter consciousness. There is a disconnect between the makers of the electronics and the users, but that is another matter, to be discussed later.

There is another purpose which can be used for classification of both technology and magic/religion. I am thinking of magic, religion and technology which are intended to serve the human spirit and life in general (let's call that love/creativity), vs magic, religion and technology which are intended to serve the human ego (and its desire for power over nature and other people) and become idols that people give their life force to (let's call that power over). Technology and magic which serve life, vs technology and magic which rule life.

This brings up four more possibilities in addition to the ones mentioned above (think of a 2x2 matrix with the rows being material and spiritual and the columns being love/creativity and power. Each entry in the matrix is filled with both magic and technology. In this more sophisticated classification scheme, we have the following 8 possibilities (with a non-exhaustive list of examples):

1A.Magic to change consciousness with the purpose of love/creativity (great spiritual teachers, "white" magic, mystics and saints, most artists, Gandalf in LOTR, some computer hackers)
1B. Magic to change consciousness with the purpose of having power over nature or people (hate mongers, "black" magic, most advertizers, most economists, Sauron and Saruman in LOTR)
2A. Magic to change the material world directly, for love/creativity (new age thinking, the God of ancient Judaism, Gandalf in LOTR, some computer hackers)
2B. Magic to change the material world directly, for the purposes of power over (Harry Potter's world, some primitive magic, Sauron and Saruman in LOTR)
3A. Technology to change the material world for love ((pre-industrial, craft-based technology, luddites, distributists, the Shire in LOTR)
3B. Technology to change the material world for power over (military/industrial technology, Saruman in LOTR)
4A. Technology to change consciousness for love (inventors, some drug users, some electronic media users, ritualists)
4B. Technology to change consciousness for power over (???)

These distinctions are not mutually exclusive, but they are useful because most of the time there is a predominance of one or the other.

I would like if there were more cultures today where people had a balance between the world of symbols and the material world. Also where they were motivated more by love than by power. What are the obstacles to this?
First, there has to be a valuing of physical work, not just as an escape, but as a way to relate to the physical world with love rather than violence.
Second, there has to be an understanding of how technology works, at all levels, not just the functional.
Third, in order for this to happen, technology needs to stay fairly simple and local, and people need to participate in making what they use, not just using it. Abstraction may be useful in computer science, but not so much in the sociology of technology. Modern technology has become big, global and beyond the understanding of most people. Such a technology creates a feeling of powerlessness to changing not only the material world, but socio-economic conditions. The fear that primitive tribes had of breaking social taboos came from thinking that those were, like laws of nature, unchangeable. Similarly, the fear they had of the forces of nature, came from a lack of understanding of those forces. And that which is not understood, but which must be obeyed, can become a source of irrational fear.
Fourth, technology must be subjugated to the needs of man, including his need to feel useful and creative. A machine should not be created that would reduce creativity and usefulness, even if it appears to save labor. A machine that is involved in food, shelter, water, healthcare, clothes or local transport should not be created if it can't be created and maintained on a local level. Such a machine will destroy community, which is a basic need of people, unless people are strong enough to resist its use. The same might be said of machines that would replace the ability of communities to provide for their spiritual needs.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Erich Fromm and Wendell Berry

Erich Fromm was a brilliant psychologist, visionary and critic of twentieth century fascism, communism, industrial society, capitalism and burocracy. He was typical of liberals who are convinced that industrial production is the most advanced form of production the human race has ever seen and that somehow it can be humanized. I just reread  his "The Sane Society", which I had read as a teenager and which has been a formative influence in my life. So much of that book has been internalized in my worldview. In neither of his chapters "Various Diagnoses" and "Various Answers" does he mention Gandhi (or american anabaptist communities). He does mention Thoreau and Tolstoy, but does not seriously consider the (obvious!) possibility (which Thoreau and Tolstoy considered) that the solution to many of his diagnosed problems might be to abandon the industrial mode of production in favor of an agrarian, craft-based one. Such an oversight would be a great mystery for me, were it not for the historical and spiritual perspective on how most people like Fromm who come from the humanistic philosophical tradition have actually adopted a religion, which blinds them to certain possibilities, as do all religions. This is not to say that religions are bad. They are useful and needed and can provide inspiration, but they can also get one in a conceptual rut. Fromm was able to diagnose most of the problems of industrial society, and yet unable to come up with a working solution.

Two other major oversights in Fromm's thinking:

1. His claim that the problem of production is solved has been disputed by environmentalists and leftists. Production has only been solved at the cost of destroying nature and the natural basis of production (forests, soils, oceans, rivers, human health), while employing non-renewable resources(so it can't go on much longer, and puts our progenitors in debt). It also keeps many in the third world in conditions that we would never want to produce under. Fromm uses the term "mastery over nature" and similar patriarchal language. Any production which includes aspirations to mastery over nature, must lead to alienation from nature, and all that is wild and soulful in humans. Better to work in cooperation with nature, within natural limits, to learn from nature.

2. He did not understand community as a necessary-for-sane-life form of organization, intermediate between individuals and states. He didn't understand the connection between land-stewardship and community and the connection between physical place and concretization (an antidote to the abstractification which he brilliantly diagnoses).

He mentions (as an example of the kind of human-scale socialism that he espouses) the Communities of Work in France which lasted no more than 30 years, and whose dissolution I could have predicted based on their total dependence on the global economy, and probably other things such as lack of communication technologies (e.g. NVC) and insufficient spiritual values to bind them together.

All three of Fromm's oversights have been expounded on by Wendell Berry.

On the other hand, based on my reading so far, W. Berry seems almost (but not totally) oblivious to the fact that small town USA has been largely parochial and xenophobic, while also benefiting from the exploits of the military and corporations (and not so long ago explicit slavery) which are ensuring mostly a one-way flow of resources from the third world into the nearby hardware stores and mechanic shoppes that he mistakenly identifies as being part of a local economy. He also does not address the problem of land distribution in the US, where most private land is left idle and most people do not have access to either land or training on how to use it wisely. So few people own so much of the land, and use it mostly for recreation, while so many are suffering from lack of meaningful work in cities (but also in rural places). What are you doing about that, Mr Berry? Can you show by example that land can be shared and stewardship can be taught?

At its core this is an example of a Hegelian dialectic of two conflicting ideologies: humanism and (neo) tribalism. Humanism at its best is about tolerance, valuing diversity, inclusiveness and treating everyone we come into contact with (not just our neighbor) as we would wish to be treated. But humanism has a dark side as well, which Wendell Berry and others have pointed to: by being a one world "village", we loses the depth of connection with land and family/tribe, and the rich culture that depends concretely on those connections. We get a dilute, abstract, bland McWorld where it is easy to have a disconnect between environmental stewardship and one's actual lifestyle, or between work that contributes directly to one's community, and work that just makes money (and likey hurts people and environment elsewehre).

Tribalism at its best is about deep connection between people and people and land, a lush culture of concrete connections, metaphors and work that is rooted in place and community. What Erich Fromm derogatorily called "blood and soil" is both the best and worse of tribalism. It is the worse because it can lead to parochialism, intolerance, racism and even fascism. One can treat one's neighbors badly because they are not part of the tribe, and one can make enemy-creation a big part of one's life and raison d'etre.

The dark sides of both humanism and tribalism have contributed  and continue to contribute to conflict and hypocrisy. The liberal-conservative conflict is partly at its core a conflict between these two value systems, though liberal neo-primitivists and hippies take more of the tribalist side, whereas pro-globalization (neo) conservatives take more of the humanist side. Wendell Berry is a (paleo) conservative, whereas Erich Fromm was a liberal. Urban liberals can espouse tolerance and diversity, while most of their basic needs are provided by people who are treated with intolerance and are not of a diverse ethnic background, nature is raped to provide those needs, and their children and grandchildren are robbed of meaningful work. Rural conservatives espouse self-reliance and community, but their "self"-reliance is government and military-subsidized (roads, hardware, tools, materials from all parts of the globe), and their community is anemic (because it is not based on the complex web of local production that can exist without industrial production). They are mostly anglo-saxon in the US (lack of ethnic diversity).
It must by now be obvious that like all dialectics, this one is just waiting for a synthesis, a marriage of the best parts of both and a transcendence of the worse. Actually, this synthesis has already started. Gandhi was a prime example of it seeing the best and worse parts of both western humanism and the indian villages (read J.C. Kumarappa's "Why The Village Movement"). Jesus saw the same in Romanism and tribal Judaism. In modern times John Michael Greer has identified a dysfunctional humanist "head of the 3-headed god of Progress" and suggested a more adaptive response to the decline of our civilization based on a synthesis between humanistic values (such as democracy and scholarship), and tribalistic ones (such as self-reliance, appropriate technology, nature worship and local economies).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

critique of amish society

Whenever thinking people encounter my proposals for local economies, they point out that this already exists with the amish, and why not go join them. Though there are many commendable things about amish culture (which I will discuss later), I want to explain why as a whole it does not appeal to me.

First of all, the amish are in Karl Popper's terms, a closed society. That means that they do not tolerate critique, that they are not open to other ways of doing things and other beliefs. A while ago, I saw a documentary in which an amish born therapist described how he was rudely attacked by an amish elder for having questions about something that was not up for questioning. I cherish the open aspect of our culture, as imperfect as it is (and open to improvement). Perhaps the amish are not totally closed, but change takes much longer in amish culture. Since not all change is for the better, perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

Some leftists will point out that our society may not be that much more open than the amish. Leftist critiques of our culture have pointed out that the kind of change that happens in our culture is superficial or negative, and that dissent can only go so far. Fashion and technology change, but the mode of production, consumption and ownership of goods has not changed in a while. One can critique all sorts of things about our economic system, but at the end of the day one is forced to participate in it or live in demoralizing and humiliating conditions. Of course it is not a black or white proposition and a minimal amount of participation is possible, without having to live in dire conditions. Nevertheless I think that the amount of influence most people have on their external circumstances is small, and the open aspect of our culture is not that helpful to change that (people who have been through state communism and fascism should read Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom before they disagree). Where the open aspect of our society makes more of a difference is to people's internal psychological states.

Second, it seems to me that the amish are rather subdued and tame. They have eliminated the extremes of human emotions in favor of a calm middle ground. They do not suffer from depression, but neither do they have ecstasy.

Third, the amish are not strictly a local economy, even for basic needs. They do trade with the global economy, sometimes pretending that they are selling their own products when it might be manufactured partially in China (I saw an advertizement for an amish made wood stove and when researching it more closely, the stove was made in China, and only a stove addition was amish made). They employ power tools and electricity from the global economy in their workshops.

Another critique of amish culture is their blinders to the effects of uncontrolled reproduction. They are starting to feel the effects of a finite land base as more and more young men have to take jobs in “english” factories instead of farming. Perhaps the meme of uncontrolled reproduction is somehow linked to the meme of a closed society. If the amish meme network were able to propagate itself better memetically, perhaps it would not need to propagate itself as much genetically. Perhaps unbridled reproduction is a parasitic meme in humans, increasing it's own fitness and that of the population in the short run, but hurting itself and the population in the long run.

Back to the commendable aspects of amish culture mentioned at the beginning of this article. There are two I want to discuss:
1. Intimate community and
2. Long-term community sustainability.

Is it possible that one of the necessary ingredients for both of these desirable aspects is a closed society? Having a foundation of values (usually religious) certainly seems to help form community intimacy, and prevent the ideological conflicts that lead to people leaving and communities breaking apart. I think this is the same issue in committed couple relationships (usually marriage) and possibly in larger groups of people such as nation states. I believe, but do not have empirical evidence, that though a non-negotiable foundation can be helpful for intimacy and sustainability, that love and commitment could form an equally strong foundation. And that a foundational belief could be the belief in openness and ability to question everything, in a loving, or at least civil way, with a desire to improve, not just to critique.

Friday, July 22, 2011

comparative advantage and local economies

Ricardo pointed out that each region has some resource or way of doing things that gives them an economic advantage over other regions. Coffee only grows in certain tropical areas, and many people in non-tropical areas want coffee. It is thus advantageous for people in tropical areas to produce coffee and trade the beans for something they want with the northern people who want their coffee.

While this makes superficial sense, it is not how things work in the global economy. What it assumes is an equal playing field, which is not the case. The coffee producers and sweatshop workers in the third world are in a much worse position than the people in the first world. If they don't produce their coffee or work in the sweatshops to produce our computers and tools, they starve or get shot. We work and live under much better conditions and we don't have to slave away under horrible conditions. If we choose not to work we can get unemployment or welfare. We have many pretty good options as far as work. In addition, the resources that many third world countries have are plundered by multi-national corporations. They effectively do not give any advantage to the third world people who live where those resources are. Those resources effectively belong to the multinationals and the third world people give them those resources at the pain of death and corrupt debt. This has prompted the perverse modification of Ricardo's original inentions by some economists. Now the comparative advantage comes from cheap labor. The third world has plenty of cheap labor and we don't. If we bring this to its logical conclusion, it can be used to justify slavery, which is the cheapest form of labor.

A local basic needs economy would circumvent this perversion of human life. If people come from a position of being able to produce all their basic needs locally within a village or region in a democratic manner, they will probably choose not to work in sweatshops or coffee plantations (unless the sweatshops and coffee plantations pay better and have better working conditions, but then they wouldn't be called sweatshops anymore).

It is important that people are producing their basic needs and not just being given them. Handouts are ultimately disempowering. People need to contribute to their own welfare, their families and their communities welfare and this empowers. The less abstract this contribution, the more empowering. In this sense, though we have our material needs provided for in the first world, we are disempowered in a spiritual and psychological sense as long as we are only providing for these needs with money. A wealthy financier or industrialist may feel a certain sense of power, but he is on one level deeply disempowered because his power comes only from the abstraction of money. A caveat is that if his money was gotten by creative work, there is some psychological sense of satisfaction in that.

Another misrepresenation of economists is that third world people have always "chosen" to go the route of western consumerism. Though this might be the case in numerous occasions now, historically tribal people and land-base people were enslaved, killed, their land taken away, their resources stolen. Of course after this rape and pillage, they might have either forgotten a better past or have to choose between death and starvation and a rosier seeming western lifestyle.

An objection to local economies is sometimes made that people will not have enough good things to eat unless they trade with the rest of the world. I don't think this is true because every region where food can be produced (and this is most regions, unless they are too mountainous or desertified) can produce good food. It seems to me that most of what people crave on a daily basis in the west--coffee, sugar, chocolate, is the result of addiction, an unhealthy lifestyle where some basic needs are not met and these imported goods are a poor substitute that never fully satisfies. It would be different if these goods where indulged in occasionally, as a luxury. No, they are clearly the manifestation of addictions. If they were luxuries, then people in local economies that did not produce them could trade for them as luxuries, but the objection above will lose its force.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Two ways of doing things

There is a natural human tendency to take the easy way out when trying to build or make something. Experienced builders and craftspeople (or rather let's call them installers of factory manufactured goods, since there are very few craftsopeople left in the US) will say that if one wants to do things right, one has to avoid shortcuts.

If one goes to third world countries or poor neighborhoods, it appears that shortcuts and poor craftsmanship (or installmanship) are the rule. One might conclude that poor people in the US and abroad are lazy, and perhaps there is some truth to that. But there is another side to it. Often poor builders and installers do not have anywhere near the resources and tools that wealthier builders and installers have. They have to use more ingenuity with less resources. It may not look as good, but often times it works just as well. The wealthy are showing how empire works: after raping the rest of the world for resources, they are all brought to a local store. With enough rape, almost anything can be done "right". For everything you want to make, there is a product at the store. The product may be toxic, may have been toxic to the workers who made it, may require mountaintop removal, raiforest depletion, war, and confiscation of peasant land. The wealthy user of the product does not concern themselves with all this but with how good and powerful their project will look like, or how comfortable it will make them feel. The more power is used in installing, the better. The more chemicals, the better. Anyone who has ever studied primitive or medieval technology will be impressed with how much more elegance and finesse it exhibits than most modern technology.

But still, most ghetto and third world installations are not very pretty, even if they are clever at times. One of the things that impressed me at the Possibility Alliance is that beauty, not just function, is a priority. Despite having almost no resources from the global economy, most of what is built, installed and crafted there is beautiful, with attention to detail.Beautiul but not ostentatious, or into power for power's sake.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

the open society and its enemies

This is the title of a very influential book that was written before the end of WWII. I think it has influenced neo-liberal and conservative economists. It is a critique of Plato's sociology, but also an eloquent defense of democracy and individualism.

Popper casts a few concepts in a different light than what I see them as:
1. Empire
2. Trade
3. Tribe
4. Social engineering.

According to Popper, the greek empire (and neo-liberals can extrapolate to the american empire) did not arise in order to exploit and oppress other tribes, but in order to facilitate trade of material goods and ideas.
Trade is not a means of exploitation either, but a means of improving the material well being of everyone, of learning (by coming into contact with other cultures) that one's ways of doing things are not unique and thus becoming less bound by one's tribe or social group. Tribe is seen as an oppressive institution, limiting individual freedom, an infantile stage of human development that we must grow up from. Social engineering, if it is to improve matters, is only to be done in small increments (piecemeal engineering), as opposed to wiping the slate clean and starting over with sweeping changes (utopian engineering).

I will start my critique with common ground. Both Popper and I agree on the ethical point that the goal of any "good" social arrangement is to maximize the freedom and potential for happiness of individuals, in an equalitian way. This is to be contrased with fascist (or communist) views that stress the stability of the state and the superiority of a master race (or class), or familial views that stress the cohesion of the family or tribalist views that stress the cohesion of the tribe.
All such collectivist ideologies, when implemented lead to what Popper calls "closed societies", in which individuals are not free to choose how they live, but must adhere to predetermined social norms or laws. Social norms exist in "open societies" too, but they do not totally hamper the freedom and creativity of individuals. Another lynchpin of some closed societies is the theory (dubbed historicism) that history operates according to certain laws and/or certain ends which are beyond human intervention, similar to natural laws or god-given will.

I think Popper is aware of collectivism as a political and social arrangement or ideology, which leads to closed societies that are detrimental to individual liberty and happiness. The other meaning of collectivism is a psycho-spiritual need of individual humans. Popper is aware of this need, but underestimates its imoportance. Collectivism in this sense is a need to transcend one's individuality/ego and either merge with or commune with a larger life (e.g. God, Spirit, Nature, family, tribe, mate, mob, nation-state, tribe). Similarly, individualism(differentiation) is not only an ideology and a resulting social arrangement, but a psycho-spiritual need. Looked at this way, it is not wise to choose either collectivism or individualism, as Popper seems to think is necessary. Both must be acknowledged and different individuals may make different choices (depending on how strong the respective need is in them) to optimize their happiness. Indeed, the psycho-spiritual need preceeds ideology and influences it. Suppression of benign, readily available means for satisfying the need for collectivism will only lead to its eruption in the (sports, or political) mob or narcotic use and an increase in ideological fascism, communism, cultism, and (lately) anti-civilizationism and neo-primitivism. Suppression of readily available means to individuate will lead to creative anemia, lack of innovation and ideologies which over-emphasize individualism, such as objectivism. Popper made an important distinction between individualism and selfishness and between collectivism and altruism, whereas most of these ideologies confuse these and allow only two possibilities: 1. individualist and selfish or 2. collectivist and altruist. Popper allowed for two more possibilites: 3. individualist and altruist or 4. selfish and collectivist (as in I only care about my tribe or my class or my nation-state). But if we view these as psycho-spiritual needs of individuals, then there are two more possibilities: 5. selfish and altruistic and 6. individualistic and collectivist.
A good social arrangement would encourage 2, 3 and 6, or equivalently all 3 of individualism, collectivism and altruism. This means that tribes and families would be encouraged, not just individuals. Possibility 4 is also known as parochialism, but tribes or families need not be parochial.

From the point of view of psycho-spiritual needs, empire does not usually increase the possibility for individuation but has the opposite effect. The needs of individuals are best decided by the individuals themselves and their family and local community, not by a global empire (whether it be ruled by tyrants, special interests or corporations). Empire may start with good intentions (or perhaps only selfish economic interest), to promote trade, which would edify people materially and culturally, but it seems to always end up oppressive.

Trade in goods and ideas can decrease parochialism and promote open societies, but when global it can also destroy families, local communities and tribes, which is precisely what has happened with global trade when 1. most people only have their labor to trade in a global market (as opposed to also guaranteed access to basic needs and a democratic participation in their production) and 2. Nasty environmental and human rights abuses can be hidden far away from those who pay for them unwittingly. Ultimately, global trade is also destroying individual liberty, because one can be controlled by the most economically powerful. There are more stringent limits to economic power when production (at least of basic needs) and consumption are local and democratic. Though the intention of global trade starts as one of freeing people from tribal customs and natural and social dependencies, it ends up making people into over-specialized idiots who do not know hot to provide for their basic needs without a dependence on global corporations, lots of capital which is only under the control of the few, and national governments. It ends up destroying communities and nature and by so doing it deprives people of the basic need for communion and ego-transcendence. I think there is a way to remedy this situation by enabling local economies at least for basic needs, but that is the subject of a different post (and has been mentioned in at least one previous post).

Last, I wish to discuss Popper's idea of social engineering. The distinction between piecemeal and utopian engineering is a very useful one and I agree with him based on history that piecemeal engineering is more effective in bringing about desireable change. However, it will be useful here to look not only at the evolution of technology but also at the evolution of biological species for a fruitful analogy, in order to learn what works. Analogies are dangerous because people often forget their limitations, but they can also be useful. Social Darwinism was an analogy that was not that useful, but only because the people making it did not understand the biology of altruism and speciation. They only focused on competition and micro-evolution (as opposed to macro-evolution, aka speciation). Analogies are useful because many interacting systems have similar dynamics, a fact that is exploited in systems theory (physics) and category theory (mathematics).

In order to understand the following, it helps to have a visual picture of a "fitness landscape". Moving in an east-west and north south direction corresponds to changes in genes and geographical location (in reality there are alot more dimensions than 2, but for the purposes of visualization pretend like there are only 2 dimensions to move in). The topography corresponds to negative fitness. Negative fitness instead of positive fitness only so that we can conceive of the highest fitness (lowest negative fitness) at the bottom of a valley. A species can move around this landscape by mutating its genes (or moving geographically), and the fitness landscape itself is dynamic by virtue of other species changing their genes and location too, and non-biological changes (meteor hits, climate change, mountain erosion, sea level rising, etc). A species which has achieved equilibrium in this landscape is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It has maximized its fitness (minimized its negative fitness). The question now is how does a species evolve to something else?

While small random changes can lead to large changes over time (on the time scale of changes in the landscape which is the sum total of all other species in one's ecology and abiological changes) and to one mode of speciation (called chronospeciation), there are other ways that species arise due to relatively quick changes in particular genes that can regulate many other genes (called master genes or regulatory genes). Changes in most genes do not make much difference because of redundancy, or only affect small changes because most genes only influence a few other genes. Master genes, on the other hand influence tens or hundreds of other genes and mutations in master genes can have large effects. Even when chronospeciation is the mechanism whereby a species evolves into another species, master genes are probably involved. Besides the timescale, the main difference between chronospeciation and a species bifurcation into two species is the fact that in a species bifurcation reproductive isolation (which might result from the original mutation or from a different mutation) is needed between the incipient new species and the mother species. I think this is because a bifurcation can occur by 3 means (after the mutation in the master gene has occured).
1. The mountainpass scenario. The next negative fitness valley can only be reached through a mountainpass, which while crossed implies lower fitness, which implies a quick transition is needed, before everyone dies. While going up to the pass, there are two forces acting against the incipient species:A. The decreased fitness. B the genetic drift partially coming from mating with the old species. If B can be eliminated by reproductive isolation, the incipient species has a better chance of overcoming A.
2. The entropic barrier scenario. There is one or a few downhill paths to the next valley, but they are very hard to find with a genetic algorithm. There are many more paths leading to higher (or equal) negative fitness (lower or equal fitness). Reproductive isolation is necessary in order for the incipient species to acquire enough distance in fitness space from the mother species. Without isolation, the incipient species is constantly coming back to the old valley through random genetic drift. Though it has acquired a beneficial mutation, the mutation can be lost by breeding with the mother species. In this scenario, there are two timescales: the time for the incipient species to get far enough away going downshill so that reproductive isolation happens automatically. The other timescale is how quickly the beneficial mutation can be eliminated by drift. Chances are increased for the new species to form with a steep downshill direction and a relatively small reproductively accessible population in the mother species.
3. The tunneling scenario. The mutation is silent for a while, offering no selective advantage or disadvantage. If the reproductive isolation does not happen quickly the mutation will be lost before the incipeient species has a chance to tunnel through to the new valley, where the mutation is now beneficial.

In these 3 scenarios a small population (the incipient species) is involved in finding the new (negative) fitness valley. This population will be genetically swamped by the larger mother species before it makes it into the new valley unless in can reduce or eliminate exchange of genes with the mother species. The mother species (unless it has small numbers due to some catastrophe) cannot make any of these 3 transitions en masse, quickly. It has inertia. Only a small population can be "lean and mean" enough to make it quickly into the new valley. The mother species can make it into a new valley only over large timescales, timescales over which the whole fitness landscape changes (due mostly to other species changing and perhaps climatic and geologic changes) and allows a constant downshill path that is easy to find.

The analogy I wish to make is with new cultures evolving similarly to new species. Instead of genes, we have memes. Instead of reproductive isolation, we have cultural isolation. Cultural isolation is not the same as starting with a clean slate, anymore than a new species has to start with a new genome. Engineering can speed up the natural process of culture formation and direct it in desireable, less random ways. In order for social engineering to be effective, one must respect these three laws of social engineering:
1. Cultural isolation is necessary unless one waits for an uphill direction to become a downhill direction, which could take eons, or an environmental/economic catastrophe.
One has to make memetic changes with a small, somewhat isolated group. The resulting culture is not closed in Popper's sense (since an isolated culture can allow for critique and individual liberty to question norms), nor does it need to stay isolated forever. Only until it is stable enough to resist being swamped by the mainstream culture from which it arose.
2. Any change proposed must be in a master meme if one of the three scenarios of culture bifurcation happens. If the change is not in a master meme, then many other changes will be required to be implemented "by hand" instead of automatically and this would take too long to figure out, even if the change is not random but engineered. All the bifurcation scenarios require a quick timescale. A mutated non-master meme will usually lead to going uphill and then coming back to the original valley, either a case of micro instead of macro-evolution (this is the case when a proposed change leads to the same old problems) or no change at all.
3. Mechanisms for mutation must be ample--by analogy with biological speciation mostly through imperfect reproduction of memes. This is exactly the open society where democratic critique and non-totalitarian education are encouraged.

Unless one respects these laws, then any changes will be short-lived and/or superficial.

Here is an example of the first law. I am struggling with this here in Atlanta. While my housemates agree that we want to change the meme of dependency on the global economy to one of local production of goods, they find it hard to not be influenced by the memes of cheap or free food which requires little or no processing (unlike garden food which at least requires washing). By contrast, the Possibility Alliance in rural Missouri has no cell phones, TV (actually no electricity at all) cars or internet, only lets in a few guests at a time and have a buffer of amish farmers around them. They are not prone to memetic infections from the mainstream culture, but actually can infect visitors with their mutated memes. They have already bifurcated.

An example of paying attention to the second law of social engineering is if one wants to change the carnivorous diet meme to a vegan meme, it won't work. Carnivorous diet is regulated by many other memes, hence it is not a master meme. One such meme is the need for more protein in a blue collar (physically demanding) job than a white collar job. Another is the meme of religious and cultural associations with meat (e.g. dominion over animals with no souls). A third is the supposed unsustainability of current alternatives to meat in industrial agriculture (their production and transport). A fourth is the reduced labor per calory of food possible with meat and animal products in areas where vegetable farming is difficult or impossible. A fifth is the supposed need for animals even for sustainable vegetable production (e.g. need for animal manure).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

update from Arkwright

Infrastructure: We are off the electrical grid, and our solar panels and batteries (all donated) are serving us well. We are off the heating grid, using two rocket stoves that heat (relatively cleanly) with wood. We are also off the water grid. We have running hot water from the rocket stove, which so far we have used for dishes, but now that it is getting warm, we probably won't fire the stove up anymore. We also have running hot water from solar panels and a heating element which we use for indoor showers and dishes. We also have hot water from the passive solar outdoor (in the greenhouse) shower now that it is above freezing. We are taking showers and I am doing laundry with that water. We are still cooking mostly with propane from tanks, though occasionally I use my little rocket stove and a solar cooker. We are planning more cooking rocket stoves for an outdoor kitchen so we could get off the propane grid. Our greenhouse is working great--we have many starts and some have been transplanted into the garden already. We are digging many beds and should have about 1500 sq feet planted (which is not that much considering it would take about 4000 sq feet to feed a person needing 2500 calories for a year (maybe half that much with two successive plantings and 1/4 with excellent yields). Our greenhouse also kept the water from freezing. We have a shallow well pump plus 750 gallon cisterns (made out of wood and pond liner) that gives us running water, and an outdoor 300 gallon tank system plus diaphragm pump plus filters for our drinking water. Our fruit trees have many buds, so I am hoping for many plums and peaches. Our chickens were laying great until I thought to experiment and see if they really need that unsustainable commercial feed so I took them off it for a week, and sure enough, they stopped laying. After two weeks on feed they are laying 5-6 eggs/day again. We are experimenting with growing worms for them and are considering using the neighbors 2000 sq foot yard for growing them some food. We are debating whether to use roundup or not to remove the Kudzu. Jenell just built a chicken tractor and we should be putting the chickens there to help us tear up the kudzu. The chickens seem happy, they have a big area to roam in (and supplement their diet with bugs), encircled by both an electric fence and chicken wire (not counting the chicken tractor). I also hope to supplement their diet with nuts from our black walnut trees which last year did not produce good nuts, but which we might be able to revitalize. I gathered some nuts from another place and am trying to grow maggots in them before I feed them to the chickens, and then crack them once the other husk is off and feed them again to the chickens. Our batteries and solar panels plus electronics are a temporary measure to buy us time. We either need to figure out how to make them locally or get off them eventually.

Social/spiritual: We are currently 3 people living in a house and two people helping with bread labor who are not living there. A few people have not been a good fit for what I (I'd like to say "we", but can't at this point) am trying to create. The urban intellectuals who have a million ideas (mostly from UTube) but can't implement any of them or only want to work on the "sexy" ones which do not address our immediate needs (e.g. someone wants to work on a DYI mass spec!). The opportunists who just want a free place to live. The anarchists who believe that they should only do what they love doing (which might be feasible after a critical mass is reached, but not at this stage of our project). The individualists who cannot take helpful suggestions for improvement without having their egos hurt. Without getting too personal, I would say that this is the most challenging area. I would like to encourage deep connection with people, nature and the divine, creativity, scholarship, critical thinking and joy. Unfortunately the internet is still prevalent in our house and I believe does not foster most of these qualities but in some cases actually works against them. It is maybe better than television, so I should be grateful for the fact that we have no television. I decided not to use internet at home and just go to the library for my brief internet needs and we will see if we can achieve consensus on that (it also costs money). We do show movies once a month, which is OK, but I would like more active activities. We did have intelligent discussions the first few movies, but not lately.

I am trying to institute activities which would promote the above qualities, but so far people have not been able to participate in those activities. The mainstream culture is too strong and I sometimes feel like I need to start with a clean slate and people who have less of the mainstream within them.

Economy: No luck with any of the people I wrote to personally (James Cameron, Greg Mortenson and Kim Stanley Robertson). Will investigate George Soros, Ursula LeGuin and Michael Moore. We are selling Kombucha as a separate coop (for legal reasons), but in order to make significant money we will need someone to take on the business/legal side of it. We are investigating making drinking glasses out of bottles. We started bartering with a neighbor who is a blacksmith. We give him and his wife eggs and veggies (she makes her own Kombucha so doesn't need ours) in return for gardening tools and barrels for rocket stoves. We do get much food and materials from the urban waste stream.

Legal: I met with a lawyer to get advice on getting 501c(3) status and tax questions. He thinks we do not need to file taxes until we make some significant money. Jenell and I attended a workshop about fiscal sponshorship from existing tax-exempt non-profits. It would be good to find a fiscal sponsor.

Transportation: we are mostly off the car grid, using bikes and public transportation and a bike trailer to haul stuff.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

the hundredth monkey

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_Monkey for background. The story is apocryphal, a myth. But maybe something like that effect happens sometimes in evolution of species or of cultures. If it does happen, it could either be a speciation event or just a fixation of a mutant gene/meme within a species/culture. The part that is controversial is a proposed wholistic, global effect that does not involve local transfer of memes from monkey to monkey (or person to person). Something like collapse of a wave function or morphic fields. There is no data from evolutionary biology to support such a scenario, as far as I know, and I won't be discussing this scenario, as interesting as it might be. I will however discuss a way that critical population size could play a role in speciation or fixation of a meme/gene. Before we discuss how something like a critical mass could be essential for speciation (or for the fixation of a mutated gene/meme), we need to review 3 possible speciation scenarios.
1. The mountain pass scenario, when a reproductively isolated population needs to overcome a fitness barrier (mountain pass and think of negative fitness for the analogy to work) in order to then descend into a new valley where it can optimize its fitness and become a new species (splitting off from the parent species).
2. The tunneling scenario, when a reproductively isolated population has a hidden phenotype due to a genetic/memetic mutation and emerges into the other valley when it has traveled far enough in geographical and/or genetic/memetic space, without a fitness penalty (splitting off from the parent species).
3. The chronospeciation/entropic barrier scenario, when the whole population makes the shift (no reproductive isolation), going "downhill" (in negative fitness) all the way, finding a rare downhill path among mostly uphill paths. The downhill path may have been there for a while but was not found, or just emerged to to changing environment.

Keeping these speciation scenarios in mind, there are three posssible ways that a hundredth monkey scenario could operate:
1. When there is no speciation, but only fixation of a gene/meme, the mutated sub-population has reached a critical mass where the probability of being swamped out by genetic drift from the unmutated population is very small, and so the gene/meme almost certainly gets fixated in the population at large.
2. When there is reproductive isolation, a mutation in a master/regulatory meme, and a mountain pass or tunneling scenario, the small new species becomes large enough to be stable and not die out. This is once they have gone over the mountain pass or tunnelled through the mountain. In a mountain pass scenario, there is the possibility of a critical mass being necessary even while going up to the pass, because more people who are already manifesting some of the new culture might actually be able to lower the barrier or be able to handle and thwart the old culture manifesting in new people. I feel like this is the situation with my project (Open Space Church or Arkwright).
3. Perhaps a critical mass could be important in a chronospeciation event (no splitting into two species) without reproductive isolation in a scenario with entropic barriers. A few individuals go down the new path and thrive, but no one follows until a critical mass is reached because people (or monkeys) from the old species/culture are not going to notice the thriving people/monkeys in the new species or perhaps they notice and persecute or make it hard for those monkeys/people, being conservative in nature and apt to believe that the old ways are better. I think this might be the situation for the Possibility Alliance.